Before the start of the 2013-14 NBA season, a springtime Thursday night matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers seemed like a pretty attractive primetime affair, with visions of league-leading scorer Kevin Durant leading another title-contending Thunder squad into a contest with a Lakers team perhaps scrapping for a playoff spot behind a version of Kobe Bryant rounding into form after knocking off nearly eight months of Achilles-rehab rust. That, of course, wasn't to be.
While Durant's turned in an MVP-caliber campaign to lead the Thunder to contention for the top seed in the Western Conference, injuries and setbacks (and, y'know, losing an All-Star center in free agency and "replacing" him with Chris Kaman) have derailed Bryant and the rest of the Lakers this season, leading to L.A. dragging a 22-42 record into Thursday's game, which the Lakers entered fresh off having ruled Bryant and point guard Steve Nash out for the remainder of the season. Four days after the Lakers pulled off a stunning upset of the Thunder, OKC returned the favor with a 131-102 smackdown behind 29 points apiece from Durant and Russell Westbrook. The game would've been more fun — although perhaps not necessarily all that much more competitive — with Bryant around.
As it turns out, though, the Mamba was present in spirit, after a fashion. During a conversation with Durant that served as the basis for a piece leading up to Thursday's game, Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News spoke with Durant about the way he works on his game, and how he's modeled that approach on his experiences with Bryant over the years:
“Of course. He’s the greatest of all time. His skill is second to none. Him and [Michael Jordan] are neck and neck as far as skill. You can put in athleticism and be the best passer and strongest and quickest. But it’s about skill. I think that’s how his game is played. That’s why Kobe is the top two best ever in just having skill, footwork, shooting the three, shooting the pull up, posting up, dunking on guys and ball handling. It’s flat out skill. Him and Jordan are 1 and 1A. They’re neck and neck as far as the skills are concerned.”
“Kobe plays his game no matter what with his intensity and focus and he will play to win. He also will do what he needs to do to get ready to play. If he sees a mismatch, he’ll take it down low and demand the ball. He’s one of those guys who will always bring the same intensity every time no matter who’s on the court.”
This will undoubtedly rub some readers the wrong way, as such statements always seem to. That's fine — rankings are, of course, a matter of personal preference, Durant's entitled to his opinion as to Kobe's all-time greatness, and the specific elements Durant's talking about (the breadth of Bryant and Jordan's skills, their commitment to technique, the variety of different things they could do offensively) might not dovetail perfectly with everyone else's definitions of "greatest of all time." There's still plenty of room to state cases for any number of other "1 or 1A" players, from Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson, to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, to Larry Bird and Bill Russell, and any number of others in between. Your mileage may vary. Please feel free to argue this on a barstool to your heart's content this weekend, so long as I am not on the barstool next to you.
What's most interesting to me, though, is the way Durant's praise of Bryant's game and accomplishments came in the context of acknowledging not only that he's modeled his own approach to skill development and improvement on Kobe's, but also that he's actively sought advice from his 2012 Summer Olympics teammate on matters both specific and general. More from Medina:
What’s Kobe’s personality like?
“He’s one of those guys that’s to himself and real quiet. That’s how it was being around the Olympics. He’s a great guy to talk to and somebody that I remember two years ago, I called him at like 3 in the morning. We both had a game the next day. I was picking his brain a little bit. He’s one of those guys who’s a night owl.”
What were you asking him?
“I was picking his brain about different situations in the game and how I can handle my teammates better and how I can approach the game a little better. I don’t think I told anybody that. But I texted him one night and said, 'Man, I need to talk to somebody before playing the next day.' It was three in the morning. He picked the phone up. That’s something I’ll always remember. When we play each other, it’s better now that we have that relationship because it was almost bragging rights.”
Durant's language here is very similar to what Indiana Pacers forward Paul George used in a recent interview, where he said he'd like to develop a mentor/mentee-type relationship with LeBron James, "because I think he’s a player that can help me get to the next level and continue to keep going to the next level." (George also said he wishes Bryant "would mentor [him]," noting that every time he runs into Kobe, "he gives me a couple words.") James, for his part, said he'd be open to mentoring George: "You know me, I don't mind it at all. I don't mind giving guys [advice], whatever he wants to ask. Guys know I have an open door/phone policy."
When those stories broke, some cast sideways glances at George for saying he'd like to be mentored by the guy whose spot he's trying to take and at James for saying he'd be willing to mentor the guy trying to take his spot. I suspect Durant won't be seeing any such side-eye in this instance, if for no other reason than that — at age 35, after a year lost to major leg injuries, on a Lakers team that looks unlikely to compete for anything meaningful any time soon — Bryant and the Lakers no longer really represent the same sort of threat to Durant's primacy as the West's best scorer or the Thunder's chances of being the West's best team that George and the Pacers do to James and the Heat. Kobe doesn't think that way, obviously — he'll believe he could compete for a championship until he's six feet under, same as Jordan — but in the context of the NBA world as it actually exists, it makes more sense in the minds of many for a great player from the new school to seek counsel from a prior generation's top star rather than for contemporaries to compare notes.
It shouldn't, though. I like the idea that LeBron and KD have worked out together. I think it's cool that the best and brightest want to not only go after each other and tear one another apart, but also want to learn from one another and try to get better by figuring out stuff they don't know from people who might. Nobody's saying that everybody needs to be the best of friends all the time, but considering that one of the primary developments of the post-AAU-basketball-playing social structure is that these guys mostly are friends, why not make the most of those other awesome people you know as you attempt to become the best possible version of yourself?
You're never going to know everything, and you're never going to be the unquestioned best at everything if you don't ceaselessly attempt to get better. A lot of that work is physical, of course, coming through hour after hour of hard labor in the practice gym and weight room, but important additions can also come from simple conversations, whether during All-Star Weekend shootarounds or 3 a.m. check-ins. Do collaboration and competition have to be mutually exclusive? Or can players adopt an "each one teach one" mentality off the court, and still go all out to take one another to school on it? It sure seems to be working for guys like LeBron and Durant; if this "mentoring" thing catches on, the rising tide could lift quite a number of super-talented young boats in the years to come.
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